This article by Ambra Health CEO, Morris Panner, originally appeared on Forbes on June 18, 2019.
Digital healthcare trends are largely driven by the need for better patient care, faster and more accurate analysis, and on-demand access to medical data. The pace of innovation in digital healthcare began gaining momentum with artificial intelligence (AI), and it is set to further accelerate as the industry turns to blockchain technology.
Blockchain technology is being leveraged to remodel the collaborative exchange of vital research and useful healthcare data, thereby enabling key stakeholders such as clinical researchers, doctors, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers to gain secure, faster, simplified and reliable access to electronic medical information. The industry already has a similar platform called the health information exchange (HIE). Many healthcare technology vendors — including my company, a medical data and image management cloud-based service — can integrate with HIE systems.
The emergence of 5G wireless networks and blockchain will help redefine and rethink digital healthcare
The new generation of faster-than-ever mobile (wireless) communications technology, 5G, is around the corner. With its unprecedented data transfer speed and strength, the technology is being seen as the holy grail of innovation, since it will help accommodate advances made in AI, machine learning, neural networks and blockchain across various verticals, including healthcare. As this new technology ecosystem emerges, blockchain promises significant improvements in capturing and managing patient records and claims data.
The financial services and banking sectors have already experienced great benefits from blockchain. Simply put, the disruptive technology is a digital ledger that stores permissioned blocks containing immutable records of data that can be accessed and shared by authorized members, with the guaranteed integrity from the point of data generation to the point of use, without manual intervention.
At a time when regulatory compliance is becoming extremely stringent in the wake of major data breach incidents, blockchain also has immense potential to underpin a new system that effectively meets demanding guidelines in patient and healthcare data protection.
Some key use-cases where blockchain will make a substantial difference in making digital healthcare more innovative and safer include:
• A new catalyst of industrywide interoperability. Currently, the HIE serves as the intermediary that facilitates the peer-to-peer exchange of electronic health records (EHR) among member participants. The system also acts as a ledger that tracks what data was exchanged. However, the model has little incentive to offer except the fact that it’s a state-designated body. With blockchain, members or healthcare industry participants have the opportunity to benefit from a distributed ledger to securely access and exchange electronic healthcare information without having to deal with a rather complex system of brokered trust.
• Seamless access and exchange of information with reduced transaction costs. Unlike the existing central system that fails to see significant volumes of transactions, thereby staying expensive, the use of blockchain would enable an evident reduction in overhead costs, giving participating groups greater incentive for a sustainable business case. Moreover, with near-real-time processing of requests, a platform underpinned by blockchain would facilitate much faster, more secure and more efficient transitions/exchanges of health records between related parties.
• Overcoming the challenges of the master-patient index with cryptography to increase data integrity and safer interoperability. One of the major problems of interoperability lies with what is referred to as master-patient index (MPI). It involves linking the health records and transactions of patients with their varied “identities” as they interact with various healthcare providers and other entities. The challenge is only becoming more complex and expensive with every passing day. This is also why patient data integrity remains a key concern, as it may become subject to risks such as data selling, data leakage, and fraudulent mismanagement.
To alleviate these limitations and risks, a blockchain-based approach could leverage cryptography to validate patient identity and strengthen data probity, too. Blockchain records can be shared among licensed participants who can add to — but not delete or alter — the transaction logs. The blockchain ensures all the transactions are encrypted and must be verified by the network. It also allows for introducing standardization in building an MPI-like list. For example, instead of allowing multiple ways to input data, the blockchain makes it certain that every participant enters/adds data in a specified way. Blockchain would thus provide much stronger data security and integrity of records and a highly standardized method to maintain data.
• Availability of smart contracts that enable transactions without the need for intermediaries and third parties. Our healthcare system is fraught with excess overhead costs, bureaucracy, and third-party intermediaries — all of which add to cost and complexity. The existing centralized system used to facilitate interoperability and transactions among participants also suffers from inconsistent rules and permissions, which make it difficult for the member health organization to access the right patient data at the right time. Blockchain enables increased trust among participating parties. By making available smart contracts, the technology helps members to solely rely on contracts that are automatically enforced when certain security conditions are met.
Moreover, by empowering member health organizations to buy, sell and transfer value (e.g., medical claims data, cryptocurrency payments, intellectual property, etc.) without an intermediary or a third-party like a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), blockchain would facilitate much-needed transparency between pharmacies, insurers, health payers, hospitals, physicians health plans and the overall healthcare ecosystem in general.
There is no doubt in stating that blockchain represents and promises a revolutionary future of healthcare and medicine. As the technology embraces high-level encryption and cryptography-driven security, all the participants and users can rest assured that their sensitive healthcare data is constantly protected and safe from possible data risks or manipulation.